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New Europe

Day Ninety-two: Vilnius

Michael Palin - New EuropeLithuania's long relationship with Poland is the key to what distinguishes it from the other two Baltic states. Estonia and Latvia looked north and west and were very much influenced by Sweden, the leading Protestant power. Lithuania looked to south and central Europe and has been Catholic since Grand Duke Jogaila converted in 1386.

The clean Lutheran lines of Old Town Tallinn are here supplanted by the swirlier, more decorative touch of the Baroque.

One thing all three capital cities have in common is the girdle of colourless concrete estates built by Soviet planners from the 1950s to the 1980s. Politically it was necessary to have these purpose-built blocks to house the vast influx of workers brought here from Russia and ideologically it was important that everywhere looked the same. Today we have the chance to see what life is like beyond the pretty old town centres where few people can afford to live anyway. Albina Takas and Stasys Aukstuolis meet us at the door of one of the blocks and we follow them up a dim, echoing stairwell past scratched and stained doorways. So far so predictable, but once inside their flat everything changes. The rooms are small, laid out on the standard-issue Soviet floor area of 56 square metres but Stasys, an artist, has managed to carve studio space out of a tiny living room. Every inch of the walls not stacked with books is covered in paintings and prints and even on the narrow balcony there are collections of pottery or pieces of driftwood waiting to be turned into something. Albina, short and energetic, with close-cropped peroxide blonde hair, teaches English 'for specific purposes', in her case, medicine. Her desk and computer are in the study which at night becomes the bedroom. From the window we look down on a strip of faded grass around which children play.

Services like water, electricity and heating are still centrally supplied, but Albina and Stasys have been able to buy their flat. For them living here is not some social gesture, it's purely practical. There is very little option. There are no rows of bourgeois houses for them to move into. Many of those were destroyed in the war and never replaced. These blocks are the reality, There is no money to pull them down and they are all over Eastern Europe.

In Tirana, Albania I saw what an artistic eye could do with the outside of these characterless buildings. Albina and Stasys gave me a glimpse of what could be done inside. As I was driven away from their estate, clutching a fine, spare, Japanese-style pencil drawing I'd bought from Stasys, I felt that as well as meeting two talented, energetic, imaginative people, I shall never again look at these blocks with quite the same assumptions of gloom and despair. A small cloud of prejudice lifted.

Recent history permeates Vilnius, not just what it looks like but what it talks about. I have a drink with a local television star, Algis Greitai. He's a charismatic figure, tall, broad-shouldered, with a shaven head and piercing eyes. He could pass for a basketball star. In fact he's a comedian, and, like many comedians, deeply, if a little disappointingly, serious. He makes the point that in 1940 the standard of living in Lithuania was higher than Finland. After fifty years of Russian occupation the roles were completely reversed.

What riled him most about the Soviet occupation was the attempt to justify it on grounds of houses built and schools and hospitals.

'I mean, fine, but we didn't ask for them. It's a bit like offering a good meal to a condemned man! If they'd let us develop our natural way, things would be much better here.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-two: Vilnius
  • Country/sea: Lithuania
  • Place: Vilnius
  • Book page no: 218

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